There is a real reason that the phrase “driving while black” exists. In other circumstances, it can be “walking while black” or “shopping while black.” White people who cannot understand the black reaction to Trayvon’s death will never understand it unless they let themselves imagine what it must be like to be stopped repeatedly — while innocent of anything — to be questioned about your very presence on this street, in this car, in this store, or in whatever place you happen to be stopped.
All of that said, plenty of fair-minded blacks and whites recognize the sometimes no-win position of law-enforcement officers who must daily — time after time after time — strike the right balance between actively monitoring the activities in the streets and respecting the privacy and rights of citizens exercising our considerable freedoms.
Furthermore, as many black leaders have exhorted, young black men have to take more responsibility — to the degree possible — for their lives, families, activities and advancement. I have personally spoken with many young black men who — with few resources of all kinds — have determined that they will become constructive forces in their own lives.
But large-scale change and the empowerment of black youth en masse will require attention to the many deficits that surround them, and the many deficits that personally they have. And as Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, has spoken about, the deficits that young black children have — as early as age 3 — are not moral failings or personal shortcomings, they are deficits in knowledge and skills. And they have developed those deficits because nobody has modeled, or taught them, the skills and personal qualities that our society values and rewards, and that individuals must possess in order to be successful in our culture.
And really, to emphasize the point about the critical role of skills and deficits, we know that struggling or failing human beings can be persons of any skin color. We know that any child or young person can be put at risk by neglectful parents, absent parents, inadequate nutrition, inadequate brain stimulation, severe poverty, dysfunctional schools, drug cultures, gang pressures, bullying, physical or emotional abuse, or lack of employment opportunities. In our urban black communities today, we see an overwhelming concentration of these factors.